Hollywood ending for Iranian hostage drama

Thirty-three years ago, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. A new film tells the story of six who escaped.

John Limbert was in solitary confinement in a basement room of the seized US Embassy in Tehran, 33 years ago, when he persuaded his captors to open his door to let in some air. It was a fortuitous request.

Outside, a guard had left a Persian-language newspaper on a chair and Mr Limbert spotted a story that gave his morale a "huge boost".

A fluent Farsi speaker, he learned six colleagues, who evaded capture when the embassy was stormed and 52 Americans were taken hostage, had been sheltered by Canadian diplomats and flown to freedom.

The storming of the embassy by militant Iranian students on November 4, 1979, is seared into the American psyche.

Far less is known about the six who escaped just 80 days into the 444-day hostage crisis - the details remained classified until 1997 because of the CIA's involvement.

That is set to change now that their story is the subject of a Hollywood film, Argo, that opened in the United States at the weekend.

Ben Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA disguise and "exfiltration" expert who devised a plan to pass off the six men as members of a Canadian film crew scouting sites for a sci-fi movie called Argo. His scheme was offered to sceptical CIA superiors as "the best bad idea we've got".

Victor Garber plays the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, who took huge risks in what was dubbed the "Canadian Caper", and became an instant hero in America.

Mr Mendez personally smuggled out the six Americans - carrying fake Canadian passports - through Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, in full view of Iranian militiamen.

Here, Affleck's broadly accurate recounting of events allows itself a little dramatic licence. In the climactic scene, the plane is pursued on the runway by car-loads of furious Revolutionary Guards.

Mr Limbert, a career diplomat and academic who saw Argo on Saturday, said that when the plane took off leaving its pursuers behind, everybody in movie theatre cheered. He joined in - even though he knew there had been no such chase.

"They took certain liberties with history for the sake of dramatic effect and it's very Hollywood - but it's a great story," said Mr Limbert, who is married to an Iranian.

Professor Gary Sick of New York's Columbia University is another fan of the film with expert knowledge of the events. He served on the national-security staff under the US presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis.

"They got the characters right and the settings are very authentic, as is the basic essence of the story," he said.

In a review of the film he wrote for Al-Monitor, a website specialising in coverage of the Middle East, he added: "Argo is brilliantly edgy and entertaining as a spy thriller.

"The reality of six fugitives living in the knowledge that at any moment could be their last is the very essence of tension."

Mr Sick recalled their escape being a "cause for total celebration" in the midst of an otherwise daily dose of "frustration and anger".

He and his colleagues in Washington had to "control their mirth" when Iran's foreign minister "complained with a straight face about the unacceptable violation of Iranian sovereignty by the Canadian chicanery".

But the full details of the getaway had to be classified - any mention of CIA involvement could have endangered the remaining 52 hostages.

Their ordeal - with nightly footage of blindfolded Americans being jostled by bearded, young Iranians — was America's first televised foreign-policy crisis and Washington's first contact with radical Islam. Within months, Washington had severed ties with Tehran. They have yet to be restored.

The debacle left the US president, Jimmy Carter, looking impotent and was largely responsible for his failure to win a second term in office.

Some fear Argo will add to negative American views of Iran at a time of rising tensions and threats by Israel and the US to take military action if diplomacy and sanctions fail to curb Tehran's nuclear programme.

"Now, more than ever, it's important for Americans to understand the difference between the majority of Iranians and this cruel, Machiavellian regime that holds their country hostage," a more recent former US captive in Iran wrote in a review for The Daily Beast website.

Sarah Shourd was held for 410 days, after straying across the border from northern Iraq, before being freed two years ago. As "a friend of Iran", she said she worries about the "all-too real threat of military" action that would "result in the death of innocent Iranians".

So how will Iranians view the film? A review by Slate, a US-based online magazine, said there was no pandering to negative stereotypes of Islam and the "opening voice-over treats the history of American meddling in Middle Eastern affairs with frank disdain".

Mr Limbert said that Argo "certainly doesn't show the [Iranian] revolution in a good light but there are individual Iranians who come out quite well".

One is the housekeeper at the Canadian embassy who, at great personal risk, covered for the six Americans when she was questioned by Revolutionary Guards.

But the Iranian authorities are unlikely to be impressed."That they were tricked and that these people escaped is a bit embarrassing," said Mr Sick. "Also, [Argo] draws attention to the mistreatment of the hostages - it shows them conducting mock executions for instance."

Out of curiosity alone, many Iranians would be keen to see the film. But any success it garners in Iran will be strictly under-the-counter.

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